A glazed cronut with chocolate shavings.

The Internet is in love with Pumpkin Spice Lattes and the new Olive Garden pasta pass. Has digital culture bred the rise of food cults?

As anyone with an Internet connection knows, food is more than fuel. The experience of eating is deeply rooted in culture and class, and there are foods around which entire cultures are centered, with Internet culture fanning the flames. Sharing your food with others is less about what’s on your table and more about what’s on your Instagram.

If it’s fuel for anything these days, food is fuel for virality. Each day, there is a new Buzzfeed list or Eater article trumpeting the arrival of the next big thing for foodies to collectively salivate over. Food have moved far out of the realm of “something you to do to stay alive” into a competitive sport. We make pilgrimages to fancy restaurants and fast food chains alike, hoping to eat something that others haven’t eaten, try something you’ll never have the chance to try again, or at least take a picture that will inspire jealousy and “likes” on Facebook.

America’s most recent food obsession is Olive Garden’s Pasta Pass: a $100 deal that lets the pass holder eat as much pasta (and the usual salad, soda, and breadsticks) as they want (or don’t want) in a seven-week period. They sold out within an hour and a half and are now being hocked on eBay for up to $375 dollars. (Buyer beware: Olive Garden does not legally have to honor your scalped Pasta Pass.)

This is insane for a lot of reasons, but not entirely surprising. As a nation, our attitude and practices toward food could easily be described as “cultish,” and from what I can tell, there are seven types of food cults. I’m sure there are splinter groups and overlaps, but these are the main players. The lesson? Americans love nothing more than a good deal. (Except maybe Olive Garden breadsticks, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

1) The Cult of the Seasonal Offering

The items coveted by this cult inspire hysteria with the limited nature. Once the item is obtained, a member of The Cult of the Seasonal Offering breathes a deep sigh of relief, takes a picture, and posts it online with the appropriate hashtag. To make this easier for you, Starbucks now refers to their Pumpkin Spice Latte as the “PSL,” making the beverage much more Twitter friendly.

The Cult of the PSL is largest splinter group, but there are others. Girl Scout cookies and the McRib (which knows no season) have equally devoted disciples. It doesn’t matter what the item is, really, only that the time that you have to consume it is limited. This could be because it is “most applicable” during certain seasons—it would be weird to sip on Pumpkin Spice Lattes in July—or it could be due to the fact that if these items were to be offered year-round, the public would snap out of their hysteria-induced daze and realize that maybe Girl Scout cookies aren’t really that much better than most other cookies.

This statement may seem blasphemous at first, but really think about it: Are Samoas really that much better than a regular chocolate chip cookie? I don’t think so. I’ll put it another way: Imagine you could only get Oreos three months out of the year, how much better would Oreos become?

Much better. Oreos would go from “pretty delicious” to “damn transcendent.”

2) The Cult of the Specialty Item

We might as well call this the “Cult of the Cronut.” A few years ago, it would have been “The Cult of Magnolia Bakery.”

This cult changed Dominique Ansel’s life. The object of desire for members of this cult is usually something that is only sold at a handful of locations, or sometimes just one, causing people to stand in lines for hours because they think they should stand in lines for hours. Some things are worth standing in line for, there is no denying that, but all that waiting affects our perception of the item in question.

The longer one waits, the harder it is to correctly evaluate the experience and we may convince ourselves that a simply “good” donut was, in fact, “life-changing.” No one wants to be the chump that waited in line for the newest trendy pastry only to discover that the newest trendy pastry is only mediocre; that’s what tourists do, and the only goal of the tourist is to not be perceived as a tourist.

The Internet is especially important to this cult as being up-to-date is crucial. One can’t wait for food mags to tell them what’s good; the print cycle is too slow. Twitter, Buzzfeed, and Eater are the bare minimum here, but once Buzzfeed tells you about it, it’s practically too late. The lines have already begun to form.

3) The Cult of “Crack Bread”

Some chain restaurants have food that is just okay, but make up for it by having really delicious complimentary bread. Red Lobster, Outback Steakhouse, and Olive Garden are three chains that come to mind. The bread at these establishments are delicious, so delicious that I am willing to overlook that fact that most other items offered are fair to middling.

4) The Cult of the Regional Chain

The effects of this cult are best summed up by a tweet put into this world by L.A.-based comedian Eliza Skinner:

I feel very comfortable saying that Dunkin’ Donuts is terrible. Their weak coffee does not taste good, and their dry donuts are only passable. Their breakfast sandwiches are pretty tasty, but I may just think that because my objectivity is always skewed by melted American cheese.

But if you’ve been told by friends and social media alike that something is amazing, you want it to be amazing.

 

The Cult of the Regional Chain has many splinter groups (many of which I am a member), such as The Cult of In-N-Out, The Cult of Sonic, and The Cult of Trader Joe’s. These groups have less to do with deliciousness and more to do with nostalgia and familiarity. This is most obvious when a regional chain expands to a new area.

Being a member of The Cult of In-N-Out, I have first-hand experience with trying to convert hopeless non-believers. “You have to order the fries Animal Style!” I have screamed to anyone who would listen.

“Did you get the Neapolitan shake?”

I love In-N-Out. I will never not love In-N-Out. But my opinion is not entirely valid as it is colored by growing up in Southern California. If someone gave me In-N-Out fries in a McDonald’s fry container, I would say they were the worst McDonald’s fries I had ever had.

This is what being in a cult will do to you, I guess.

5) The Cult of Extreme Eating

The Travel Channel may have started this, but the Internet has taken it to new heights.

This cult views eating as a sport rather than a necessity, with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain reigning as its high priests. Members include competitive eaters (obviously), “secret menu” enthusiasts, and people who “will eat things just to say that they did.”

Splinter groups vary mainly in their definition of “extreme.” The term could refer to price, amount, or shock factor. Arby’s new “Meat Mountain” is extreme in terms of both amount and shock factor; it is just an obscene amount of meat.

The most important aspect of being a member here is not that you ate it, it’s that everyone knows that you ate it. If you don’t check in Humphry Slocombe and take a picture of their bacon ice cream, did it even happen?

6) The Cult of Slightly Altered Junk Food

I’m a card carrying member of this cult. I see a limited edition Oreo, I eat a limited edition Oreo. I have tried every incarnation of the Doritos Taco, and I demand to know why we don’t yet have Doritos Loco Nachos Bell Grande.

This cult often overlaps with The Cult of the Seasonal Offering and/or The Cult of Extreme Eating, but some members of this cult are singly obsessed with one particular food thing. This would include that one guy you know who must try every single flavor of M&M’s ever invented.

Virality is the lifeblood of this cult, so the focus is not necessarily on quality. When Taco Bell release the Doritos Locos Taco, it didn’t matter whether it was good or not; all that mattered was that it was there.

7) The Cult of the Food Tourist

This cult also worships Andrew Zimmern and the like, but for different reasons. A member of this cult “loves eating street food” and is obsessed with not being your “typical tourist,” when in reality they are the ultimate tourist. This cult walks a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation.

This is the current white boy obsession with tacos. This is a six-dollar side of grits and “elevated” chicken and waffles. This is Whole Foods claiming that “collards are the next kale.”

A member of this cult is either clogging up your feed or nowhere to be (virtually) seen. The latter is really just eating for the pure joy of it and feels no need to involve anyone else. The former still gets a little thrill from racking up likes and imagining the jealousy of others. (I am the latter, to be honest.)

As with all the seven cults, there are countless splinter groups and spinoffs, all equal in their zeal. But however many there are, one thing is for certain: Food isn’t just fuel in a digital landscape. Food is the digital landscape.

Photo via LittleDaan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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